This season of College Light Opera Company has been spectacular. It has a wonderful company, great stage direction, sets, costumes, choreography and lighting. So “Trouble in Tahiti,” the one-act opera (from 1952) with words and music by Leonard Bernstein, presents a challenge. There is no lack of anything with the company, but the opera itself is dated (sometimes in a good way) and dark; even the magic of the company’s crew and ensemble can’t, however, for this reviewer, conceal its flaws. For all that, it was an interesting night, though thankfully short.
The stage direction by Mark Pearson was wonderful; so was the music direction by Mila Henry. The costumes were so 1950s and the set was minimal, but perfect.
The opera has seven scenes and presents a couple, Sam and Dinah (Alex Poletti and Gillian Weatherford), who live in the suburbia of the 1950s. They are surrounded by lots of commercial comforts. In fact, the play opens with snippets of radio voiceovers extolling the products that will make your life better. It was a trip through the past.
Providing continuity and social comment was a Greek chorus comprising Sophie Thompson, Orlando Montalvo and Brandon Roth. Their singing was wonderful, and Caitlin Belcik’s choreography for them was almost flawless. Sophie Thompson’s voice was a match for those ‘50s’ commercials; so were Orlando’s and Brandon’s. They had some silly songs: “Soup and Sandwich” was sung to the tune of “Love and Marriage.”
I didn’t mind the dated quality. It was kind of a trip down Memory Lane. It was interesting to see how Bernstein contrasted the light frothy tunes of the ads with the dark, dissonant, insistent rhythms of the libretto sung by Dinah and Sam. They are not happy, and the music conveys that.
Sam is caught up in being a man—he gets his satisfaction from winning a trophy at the gym, his business, and maybe flirting or more with his secretary. Dinah longs for an escape from suburbia. She goes to a therapist for help. And to the movies. The two do have some lovely duets. Gillian’s voice is especially lovely. Their voices blend well. Some of the lyrics were evocative—“back to the garden where we began” reminded me of the Garden of Eden and, of course, Adam and Eve. That idyllic “Island Magic” is fleeting for this couple, who have a son that we hear about, but who is as insubstantial as their relationship to him. Some of the themes in this piece reminded me of those of “West Side Story.”
The sound was a problem. Not the music, but for some reason, singing operatically often does not make the words clear. I don’t know if the singers were individually mic-ed. Their voices projected but they lacked clarity in enunciation. In this opera, there is no supporting dialogue to move the action forward. Thank goodness for the chorus. The other disappointing factor is there is no resolution to the main dilemma of the story. Going to a movie at the end does not resolve the angst of the two protagonists. Maybe it was okay in the 1950s when the world in general was more “stable,” and Bernstein was making a point for “more” happiness rather than more things. For this theatergoer, that lack was not an asset.
Still, I think I would recommend going, especially if you have been to other CLOC productions this year. What you get is a chance to see the range of the performers and the crew and musicians. Alex Poletti, for instance, had a minor role as an inspector in “Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.” This was a more demanding role for him and he filled it well. And if you are a fan of Leonard Bernstein’s music, this offers another exposure to his harmonic vocabulary that’s worth hearing.
Moreover, when you see something you are not as keen about, it makes you think about what you do want from a production.
There are evening performances through Saturday, July 24, at 7:30 PM and two matinees at 2 PM, one each on Wednesday and Thursday.
There is also a live streaming option on Saturday night. Tickets are available through the box office at 58 Highfield Drive, by calling the CLOC box office at 508-548-0668. The box office is open Monday through Saturday, from 10 AM to 4 PM. Tickets for the streaming performance are available through the company’s website.
Next week’s production is “The Wizard of Oz.”